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In early March 2020, James Baldwin, a NYC Outward Bound transfer school in Chelsea, offered its very first Climate Art class, an after-school program that presented an opportunity for students to earn an Earth Science or Visual Art credit.

We all know what happened next.

COVID-19 changed everything, forcing schools to close their doors and take learning remote. Caity Tully, Earth Science teacher at James Baldwin, and Gregory Corbino, teaching artist at the High Line, who co-created and instructed the Climate Art class, pivoted quickly and creatively to find a way to continue the popular course for students.

The collaboration between James Baldwin and the High Line, which is within walking distance from the school, originated from a neighborhood assessment conducted by the High Line in 2019. 

“It was clear to us that the staff and students at James Baldwin — many of whom need credits to complete high school — could benefit from an educational partnership,” said Claudia Dishon, School and Family Programs Manager at the High Line. “Since we’ve started, we’ve seen the partnership grow to provide a degree of art education that brings incredibly thoughtful, inspiring work out of the students.”

The class continued to meet over Zoom, learning about climate change-related topics like the Greenhouse Effect and the Carbon Cycle. Melanie Kress, Associate Curator for High Line Art, and Angel Garcia, an NYC-based muralist whose art is social justice-themed, spoke with students, teaching them how to turn their learnings into original art.

Vernon Oviedo's Climate Art piece superimposed on the High Line.

This partnership is a great example of how place-based education can create such a special learning experience for students. They’ve been able to meet expert artists in their own community on the High Line. It’d be hard to recreate this experience anywhere else.

Caity Tully

Earth Science Teacher, James Baldwin

Students were also shipped free art kits with high-quality supplies specifically curated by the staff at the High Line — a bright spot in an otherwise dark year.

During the pandemic, Tully says the class evolved into more than just a way to earn credits, but served as a creative outlet and a social-emotional checkpoint for students.

“Climate change isn’t necessarily an uplifting topic, but by discussing the content with experts Claudia and Greg through a lens of resiliency, and then processing their learning through art, this class gave our young people a sense of understanding and control over something that they often see in the headlines,” Tully said.

“We strive to create spaces where all students can be vulnerable in a safe way,” added Jennifer Ifil-Ryan, Director of Education at the High Line. “Using art as a social-emotional outlet is available to everyone, not just the people who learned how to draw and paint at an early age.”

The class just wrapped its fifth semester — finally returning to in-person learning on the High Line in September. 

“Climate Art is different from our regular classes because we combine art and science to illustrate how our environment is affected by global warming, and also how we can purposefully change these things in our society,” said Janay Jones, a senior at James Baldwin, who took the class for three consecutive semesters.

Going forward, the High Line plans to showcase some of the students’ best work on their website, and eventually, display some of the artwork in the park itself. Given the class’s theme, there’s also a push to move toward sustainable, zero-waste art kits that include all natural, self-made pigments along with brushes and paper made from organically grown materials.

Last semester, the High Line also offered two James Baldwin students staff positions inas High Line Teen Staff, their paid Youth Employment program, which involves observing and assessing classes with the High Line’s educational partners.

“This partnership is a great example of how place-based education can create such a special learning experience for students,” said Tully. “They’ve been able to meet expert artists in their own community on the High Line. It’d be hard to recreate this experience anywhere else.”

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